Arts / Performing Arts

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra Champions Classical (and New) Music In Houston By Making It Accessible and Exciting

Alecia Lawyer's Amazing Arts Story Is Worth Telling

BY // 05.09.24

Seeing life through the ROCO lens is a great place to be.” – Alecia Lawyer, ROCO founder, artistic director and principal oboist

It’s not everywhere nor every day you come across a thriving professional orchestra still led by its founder nearly 20 years later, still bursting with energy and blooming with creativity. That’s the story of Houston’s unique River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, now known simply as ROCO.

Twenty years ago, after earning a master’s degree from Juilliard and living in Paris during her husband’s graduate studies, Texas native and oboist Alecia Lawyer settled in Houston. When she saw the planned renovations at her church St. John the Divine, Lawyer realized the sanctuary would be an ideal place for a chamber orchestra to perform.

“I knew that an orchestra had to be created that was human first, “Lawyer says. “And not just a concert hall experience removed from all the joys of life.”

And so ROCO was born — growing into an ensemble that would eventually perform in 70 additional venues, including museums, parks and hospitals.

A Houston Classical Music Trailblazer

Since its inception, ROCO has grown to include 40 professional musicians from all over North America, fulfilling Lawyer’s vision of creating programs that mix classical pieces with exciting new music from living composers.

One of the orchestra’s goals, Lawyer told a group of supporters recently, is to “make technology not a barrier.” Among the works ROCO has commissioned, many have been at the forefront of incorporating technology. Its concerts often involve screens showing video and original animation that accompany the orchestra. Some of the new pieces incorporate electronic music.

However, the monumental composers who created the art form are far from overlooked. The internal majesty of their work lives on, and ROCO renders them beautifully. Often it is a beloved classical piece that shapes the sharpest memory of a concert.

The upcoming season will bring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Holst’s The Planets and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra performs at Rice University's Brockman Hall (Photo by Violeta Alvarez)
ROCO performs at Rice University’s Brockman Hall (Photo by Violeta Alvarez)

Houston performing art lovers have responded to this trailblazing ensemble. ROCO draws impressive audiences and is financially stable, with a current budget of $2.3 million. Its success has made Lawyer one of the most respected arts figures in the city.

Lawyer’s passion and enthusiasm for the music, the musicians and the community is energizing — and contagious. It’s almost impossible to attend a ROCO concert and not feel the esprit de corps among the musicians.

ROCO likes to describe itself as “the most fun you can have with classical music.” One example? The women musicians are free to wear gowns in the color of their choice, bringing an élan and lightness not possible in a sea of black attire.

Lawyer says she wants ROCO to speak “that love, that joy, that possibility you can get when you have the community with you as partners in experimenting.”

Affordable Performing Arts

Basic to Lawyer’s vision is making performances affordable. Many ROCO concerts are offered on a pay-what-you-wish model, with a $35 per ticket suggestion. Most ROCO concerts start at 5 pm and end by 7 pm, allowing different generations to partake and everyone to plan more into their evening if they like. Free valet parking is also usually available.

“Access means we try to lower as many obstacles as possible, try and hit every single definition of access from financial to physical,” ROCO managing director Amy Gibbs says. “We leave the house lights up enough so the audience and musicians can see each other. We want our concerts to be easy and fun.”

Removing the fourth wall has the effect of what Lawyer calls “integrating” the musicians and the audience. “We invite the musicians to be vulnerable and invite you in,” Lawyer says.

“Alecia does such a great job in building an environment of leadership and belonging,” says Brook Ferguson, principal flutist for both the Colorado Symphony and ROCO. “And that has everything to do with why it is my happy place.”

ROCO In Concert w Mei-Ann Chen applause (Ray Kuglar, Blueprint Film Co)
ROCO in concert with Mei-Ann Chen (Photo by Ray Kuglar, Blueprint Film Co)

All of ROCO’s musicians are virtuosi in their own right, as are the artists-in-residence, guest conductors and commissioned composers. ROCO appears keenly aware of the high expectations of its discerning audience and keeps the bar high.

ROCO presented composer Missy Mazzoli’s marvelously intriguing 2014 piece Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) last season before Houston Grand Opera put Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves on its schedule for next season.

Also notable was ROCO’s world premiere commission of star composer Richard Danielpour’s Triptych (Symphony in Three Movements After the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri). Danielpour was on hand last month when ROCO presented the final movement Alle Soglie del Paradiso before the May 17 premiere of his opera The Grand Hotel Tartarus, at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, where he serves as professor of music.

Among a long list of achievements, Danielpour has received commissions from multiple symphony orchestras, including New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Orchestre National de France. The Library of Congress website describes him as “one of the most gifted composers of his generation.”

Richard Danielpour worked with ROCO at Asia Society Texas Center. (Photo by Violeta Alvarez)
Richard Danielpour worked with ROCO at Asia Society Texas Center. (Photo by Violeta Alvarez)

ROCO’s Electric New Season

ROCO’s upcoming 2024-25 season is set to bring new artistic collaborative partners and new concert venues. It will also bring the milestone of ROCO reaching 150 world premieres. Using Lawyer’s calculations that 10 percent of all commissions “make it” into in the repertory, that equates to 15 works with lasting power in 20 years — a significant achievement.

ROCO is also bringing on exciting Bulgarian-born conductor Delyana Lazarova as its third artistic partner, alongside conductor Mei-Ann Chen and concertmaster Scott St. John. Lazarova’s dynamism and articulation fairly explode on the podium along with a natural charisma, yet sacrifice none of the meticulous training she received under the tutelage of Swiss conductor Johannes Schlaefli.

Known for her specialization in the Eastern European and Russian repertoire, Lazarova is also passionate about music of the 20th and 21st centuries. ROCO audiences cheered her performances last season. Now, after a summer that will take her to Germany, England and Bulgaria, Round Top audiences will be able to see her on the podium July 13 leading the Texas Festival Orchestra in a program of Beethoven, Dvořák and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

Lazarova will return to St. John the Divine on February 8, 2025 to conduct the ROCO-commissioned world premiere of Clarice Assad’s piano concerto Total Eclipse. The pairing of those two prominent artists represents a high-powered display of musical talent. There’s no telling what adding pianist Lara Downes to the mix might ignite.

Along with what’s been called the “iconoclastic gusto” she brings to classical music, Downes reportedly draws 100,000 listeners to her weekly syndicated radio program.

Delayana Lazarova joins ROCO as its third artistic partner. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
Delayana Lazarova joins ROCO as its third artistic partner. (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Another blockbuster addition to the ROCO roster will be composer-in-residence Viet Cuong, who will debut his latest creation Constellations. What better topic for a premiere in Space City? There’s still time to brush up on your stellar formations. The opening pair of concerts will take place this fall — September 27 at Miller Outdoor Theater and September 28 at St. John the Divine.

Cuong’s piece will be a visual and auditory experience, with each movement featuring musicians positioned to mirror the stars of various constellations when viewed from above, allowing the crowd to experience the convergence of celestial bodies and musical expression.

In a more solemn expression of artistic generosity on March 27, 2025 at the Asia Society Texas Center, Cuong will share a poignant song cycle inspired by his family’s escape from Saigon. This deeply personal work showcases tenor Nicholas Phan, who is making his return to the ROCO stage. The Boston Globe has described Phan as “one of the world’s most remarkable singers.”

Viet Cuong Composer In Residence (Aaron Jay Young) 2021-2-web
ROCO composer-in-residence Viet Cuong (Photo by Aaron Jay Young)

All ROCO concerts with a full orchestra include one or more premieres. My experience is that these debuts are not only new and innovative, but enjoyable. They have a feeling to them that transcends the program. In a word, I’d say that feeling is uplifting.

A lot of that heart comes from Lawyer, and the musicians and staff she choses to go on the journey with her.

In addition to the full orchestra roster, the two-concert Unchambered Series features individual ROCO musicians who create their own programs. Lawyer will lead in recital on October 19 at the stunning Horizon on Sunset Art Gallery & Event Center.

The seven-concert Connections Series offers audiences new experience of place. The sure-to-be-popular series opener will be “Yuletide with ROCO and Jazz Houston” on December 7 at the Houston Botanic Garden. Other venues for 2025 include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Asia Society Texas Center; and MD Anderson Cancer Center Park Atrium.

For information about tickets, programming and the “ROCOrooters” childcare and music education program for kids from two months to 10-years-old during and after the concerts at St. John the Divine, go here.

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